The Role of Narrative

Before we can proceed with the analysis of writing’s impact on Western civilization, I must step back for a moment and explain another development: narrative. Why is storytelling such an important component of culture? All cultures have their stories: why are they universal?

There are many answers to this question. I’ll start with what I consider to be the most basic answer: stories are the fundamental data format of human cognition. That’s a wildly unconventional claim, so I’ll need to provide a lot of justification for it.

The first argument in favor of my claim is that dreams are experienced in the form of stories. If you think about it, there is no obvious reason for there to be a connection between dreams and stories. We know that dreams serve a "garbage collection" in the brain. Dreaming is essential to the formation of long-term memory. At the end of the day, the brain reviews the day’s experiences, sorts them out, throws away most of them, and integrates any useful lessons into the overall structure of the brain. There is nothing story-like about this process. Indeed, the stories that we experience during dreams seem to have little to do with the day’s experiences. I explain the process as follows:

The process of dreaming is an intrinsically nonsensical process to the dreamer. After all, when your own memories are being rearranged, how can you possibly understand the process? "You" are offline while it’s happening -- why do you think dreaming only happens when you’re asleep? Clearly, what’s happening is that the brain shuts down most of its modules while dreaming, but leaves a small part operational to mind the store just in case a lion walks up while you’re sleeping and nibbles on your toes. Apparently this vigilant submind has access to short-term memory, but that short-term memory is disconnected from long-term memory during the dreaming process (after all, it’s the long-term memory that’s being re-arranged, so it can’t be accessible while it’s undergoing renovation.) This explains why, when you first wake up, you can recall the dream (using short-term memory), but the memory of the dream quickly fades.

Thus, what is stored in your short-term memory is a jumble of random data, the bits and pieces of long-term memory that are being reshuffled. The dream tends to be about things that are emotionally significant to you because that, after all, is what’s important about the day’s experiences and needs to be integrated into long-term memory. In other words, the sorting algorithm that sifts through the day’s experiences and decides what to keep and what to discard uses emotional significance as one of primary factors in favor of retaining a memory.

So here you are, the dreamer, a small subset of a much larger brain, sitting around minding the store while something in your brain that is much larger and much smarter than you are reshuffles your long-term memory. Think of the process like so: you’re a small child playing on the floor while mommy edits a film the old-time way, with a film cutting-and-splicing machine. Mommy is adding some new material to the film, but in order to do so she needs to re-arrange some of the scenes, cut out bits and pieces, then re-splice some of them into other parts of the movie. On the ground, you don’t see the entire movie; you see only the bits and pieces that fall to the floor. (Not just the stuff that’s being cut out, but also the stuff that’s being moved around.) You look at each piece. And somehow you assemble a story out of those bits and pieces. The story really doesn’t make much sense, and the continuity is lousy, but individual segments of it are quite clear and powerful. Despite these weaknesses, you still experience the collection as a story.

Does this not suggest that your mind is forcing those random bits and pieces to fit into the format of a story? That in fact stories are the basic data structures of the higher mind, the template into which each and every memory is required to fit?

Consider that children are capable of telling stories at a very early age. As soon as their linguistic skills are up to the need, they start spewing out stories. Many times, if you ask a young child to describe some static fact, the child will answer with a story, even though a story is not called for. These kids are perceiving the world through the lens of storytelling.

But there’s another justification for my claim that stories are the fundamental data format of the higher brain: language is organized in story format. The most basic form of language is "Agent verb patient". The subject, an active agent, somebody with volition and capability, carried out an action upon some other person whom we call the ’patient’. Every sentence is itself a tiny story. We see those tiny stories in the headlines of newspapers: "President nixes bill" "Fire destroys building" "Terrorists kill people" Each of these headlines is a tiny story in and of itself. The remainder of the article tells the story a second time, in greater detail.

One of the great controversies that has engaged the linguistic and cognitive science communities for nearly a century is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The hypothesis posits that the structure of language influences the thinking of its speakers. The most extreme version of the hypothesis, "Language and thought are one and the same", has been rejected. The opposite extreme, that language has zero influence over thinking, has also been rejected. To some degree, language does influence the way we think. The question is, how much?

I have a slick answer to that question: we think with different mental modules and language controls the operation of the linguistic mental module, and nothing more -- but the linguistic model provides the basis for much of our rational thinking. The linguistic module also stores many of our memories of events, and those events are all recorded in the brain in something like a story format.

Stories and Culture
Stories are also the vehicle by which cultural knowledge is communicated from one generation to the next. They’re not the only vehicle, of course, but they certainly play an important role in transmitting cultural information. Storytelling is an ancient technique, probably developing in parallel with language.

But why should such information be transmitted by stories? Why couldn’t cultures simply compile their knowledge into a simple, compact list of important truths, and then require every young person to memorize them? It’s likely that such an approach would be quicker and more efficient than the long-winded storytelling system -- so howcum no culture ever adapted such a superior alternative?

The answer has to do with the character of the information transmitted. Most of the information content of such stories pertains to social reasoning. Some pertains to the natural history mental module, but the bulk of these stories concern interpersonal behavior: trustworthiness, marriage, assiduousness, and so forth. Note that this information is handled by pattern-recognizing mental modules. This raises an immediate problem: how do you communicate pattern-type information to a pattern-recognizing mental module using a sequential medium such as language? In computer terms, the data is in the wrong format for the communications link!

What we need is a reformatter, something that converts one thinking-format to the other. And narrative is that reformatter. It’s an ad-hoc solution to a nasty interfacing problem that arose rather early in the development of language.

Consider: a story is definitely a linear sequence of events; we even refer to its architecture as a "plotline". Yet the content of the story cannot be understood until the story has been completely received. If I’m downloading my email and the transmission link is broken 90% of the way through, I can still read the email and figure out most of its content. But if you are watching a movie in a theater and the projector breaks down 90% of the way through the movie, you have every right to demand a 100% refund; without that last 10%, the story never snaps into place, and is a useless communication.

Thus, stories are complete patterns that communicate some special kind of knowledge to our pattern-recognizing mental modules. How does that happen? Here is a visual metaphor that clearly shows what happens (well, it’s clear to visual thinkers...):

Imagine your knowledge to consist of a meshwork of connected ideas. I’ll draw that mesh as looking something like this:

Figure 1

The triangles represent ideas or concepts inside our minds. All of our ideas and memories exist in some association with other ideas and memories; we have associative memories. Now this little diagram is misleading in two ways: first, it is a conceptual diagram, not a blueprint. It sketches out some imaginary set of relationships, not some real structure inside our brains. Second, it is vastly oversimplified. Our mental associations are far bigger, richer, and denser than this little icon. I present it only to prepare you for a little exercise in visual reasoning.

We can improve on this diagram by taking into account two facts: first, that some ideas hook up to more than three other ideas, and second, that ofttimes the connections between different ideas are strained:

Figure 2

Now let’s consider how learning is represented in this diagrammatic system. Sometimes learning is just a matter of adding new ideas:

Figure 3

The new triangle on the left, marked as idea A, represents a new idea tacked onto our existing mesh. But sometimes learning consists of combining two previously unassociated ideas. For example, one of the exciting moments in physics education is the moment when one realizes that the sky is blue for exactly the same reason that the sunset is red. That realization will often cause more than a simple addition of a new link in the mesh; it often causes the entire mesh to change shape to accommodate the new link smoothly. Thus, we discover that idea A doesn’t stand alone; it connects idea B with idea C. In the process, it drags C a bit to the left, causing the entire mesh to snap into a much neater pattern:

Figure 4

This altered mesh is cleaner than the previous mesh; the links are straighter and smoother. This sudden change of shape in our mesh is the source of the Aha! experience. We say that everything "clicks into place". We enjoy the experience.

Now it’s time to show how narrative works in this system. Remember that a story is not an isolated fact: it’s a connected system of facts. Indeed, a story in this line of thinking is a little mesh of its own, a set of associated ideas that link together in a specific fashion:

Figure 5

Notice that this story is an altered version of the lower left corner of the mesh presented immediately above. However, it’s different: it sports two new ideas, K and L, and the links between ideas have been altered into an even cleaner structure than we see above. In other words, if you include ideas K and L in your thinking about this matter, then it will be clearer and make more sense to you. Now suppose that you are a teacher and you have a student whose conception of the material is represented by Figure 4 and you want to teach this student the new ideas K and L. The conventional approach is to attempt to cram K and L into the student’s mesh by a sequence of breaking up old connections and inserting new ideas and links. Of course, since this process is necessarily sequential, so the student experiences the sequence as something like this:

Figure 6
"Break the link between D and G"

Now look where this leaves the student: with a broken mesh that makes no sense. The student is being asked to accept an intrinsically nonsensical set of ideas. And like any reasonable person, he rebels against the suggestion that he accept such nonsense. But the teacher presses on:

Figure 7
"Move G and H left and downward"

Now the student is truly befuddled. H is on top of F and the connection between H and F is crazy. The connection between G and the pentagon has been stretched beyond all reason. This mesh is growing ever more insane. In other words, the conventional process of education requires the student to rip up perfectly reasonable meshes in order to obtain better meshes. True, the end results are superior, but the intermediate steps are utterly nonsensical to the student. Education becomes a process with as much intellectual demolition as construction.

Now consider how narrative handles the problem of getting the student from Figure 4 to Figure 5. The teacher presents the student with the entire story of Figure 5, as a complete whole. The student superposes Figure 5 on his existing Figure 4:

Figure 8
Story (red) superposed over existing mesh (blue)

It’s obvious that the student is being asked to make big changes in this mesh, but he has three solid reference points, the C triangle, the D quadrilateral and the pentagon. Moreover, many of the older relationships have been preserved, just stretched and moved. Seeing the story in its entirety, the student can readily see the alterations necessary to incorporate it into his own mesh. Indeed, the process requires no conscious effort on the part of the student; the natural learning processes of the human mind will pounce on this new and obviously superior mesh and snap it into place.

This is how storytelling evolved to communicate meshy, pattern-based knowledge through the medium of sequential language.

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